D.C. public school will teach virtually in the fall; this is the right call

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday that D.C. public schools will instruct students utilizing remote learning until at least November. All District of Columbia charter schools are certain to follow suit. The news is extremely disappointing for parents and students. However, it is absolutely the correct decision.

As a society we have not done what we needed to do to get this pandemic under control. Some of this phenomenon is due to the science behind Covid-19; it took time for scientists and medical professionals to understand the truly basic behaviors that could reduce infection rates. However, and this is the part where mankind has fallen far short of its potential, politics entered the debate over re-opening businesses and other activities which has resulted in thousands of Americans dying unnecessarily.

The drive to bring life back to a new normal has been extremely strong. People have been out of work and many have not been able to pay their rents or mortgages. Food insecurity has risen rapidly throughout the nation. The natural response to the deep despair and severe stress our neighbors have been facing on a daily basis was to hit the ignition switch on our economy, which before the spread of this infection was the strongest in the world. But what adults often learn the hard way throughout their lives is that what you want to happen is often not what should occur.

This is not to say that those who have argued to keep schools closed have acted with behaviors that should be an example to our children. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, Julie Zauzmer, and Justin George detailed yesterday, with photographs, members of the Washington Teachers’ Union delivering simulated body bags to the headquarters of DCPS. This is beyond disgusting.

We desperately need to get our children back into classrooms. Stories abound about kids falling behind academically as they are forced to stay home, a situation that is significantly amplified for special education students. Social and psychological problems arise due to the current environment. Adults cannot figure out how to balance school and their careers.

We will get through this current state of affairs. Our education leaders will strengthen distance learning programs and do the absolute best that they can for our scholars. They will do the right thing because that’s what we do in this country.

I’ve re-read many times the words of Congressman John Lewis that he requested to be printed on the day of his funeral. He remarked:

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

School buildings will be closed come August. Let’s teach our children.

D.C. charter board bids adieu to executive director Scott Pearson with total class

When I reviewed the agenda for Monday evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, I remember thinking that the session was a waste of time. The items for discussion were so few that I thought the authorizer should take the night off. But then I tuned in and quickly realized why this gathering was taking place.

It turned out that the PCSB had put together a highly organized celebration of the eight and a half years that Scott Pearson has held the role of executive director. On Zoom, speaker after speaker, over a span of about an hour and 10 minutes, sung Mr. Pearson’s praises about his achievements. The list of participants perfectly represented the history of the spectacular success of charter schools in the nation’s capital. Mr. Pearson observed the event with his wife sitting closely on one side of him and his daughter on the other. Allow me to list the speakers in order of appearance so you get an idea of the magnitude of this endeavor:

Rick Cruz, PCSB chair; Saba Bireda, PCSB vice chair; Steve Bumbaugh, PCSB board member; Lea Crusey, PCSB board member; Naomi Shelton, PCSB board member; Jim Sandman, PCSB board member; Sara Mead, former PCSB board member; Skip McKoy, former PCSB chair; Don Soifer, former PCSB board member; Shannon Hodge, DC Charter School Alliance executive director; Maya Martin, PAVE founder and executive director; Terry Golden, KIPP DC PCS chair; Jack Patterson, KIPP DC chief community engagement and growth officer; Abigail Smith, former DC Deputy Mayor for Education and E.L Haynes PCS chair; Erika Bryant, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS executive director; Laura Maestas, DC Prep PCS chief executive officer; Daniela Anello, DC Bilingual PCS head of school; and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, former PCSB deputy director.

All of the speeches powerfully and meticulously detailed the contributions Mr. Pearson has made to the education of all children in the District of Columbia. However, as with many board meetings, it was Mr. Sandman who I believe best summarized the reasons many are deeply disappointed that there is a change in leadership at the PCSB. He stated that Mr. Pearson had four main accomplishments. Mr. Sandman recognized the former executive director for his single minded focus on school quality, his implementation of measures of quality and policies around the PCSB’s work, the recruitment of world-class staff, and his personal integrity.

Once Ms. DeVeaux concluded her remarks, which, despite a heroic effort she could not get though without crying, it was Mr. Pearson’s turn to address the audience. He and his wife followed in the former PCSB deputy director’s footsteps in that I could see tears streaming down their faces. Mr. Person’s words should stand as a permanent testament to the meaning of charter schools in the United States of America:

“’This job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.

I’ve said many times that this job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.  So, this moment is very emotional for me.

Public charter schools have always been about empowering people to create great schools that meet the needs of families.   Is there anything more inspiring than this? The unlocking of human potential is the greatest work any of us can engage in. In public charter schools we have found a new way to achieve this, at every level, from the students we serve to the 600 school board members who are now engaged in supporting public education in Washington, DC.

Public charter schools have always been about both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  The what, of course, is creating excellent and unique schools, schools who allow families to find a school that is the right fit for them, who innovate to produce better and more equitable results, and who transform communities.  But the ‘how’ is just as important. Public charter schools allow extraordinary individuals – many of whom would never dream of working in a large education bureaucracy – to participate in the great civic endeavor of public education.  A good authorizer, through a focus on outcomes paired with maximum freedom for how those outcomes are achieved, allows innovation, diversity, choice, and excellence to thrive in public education.

That has always been the promise of public charter schools.  But when we look around the country, we see that promise has too often been unfulfilled: schools underperform, they find ways to be selective, they steal money, they fail to serve all students.  And often, the underlying cause of this failure is an authorizer who is too lax on quality, who deprives schools of essential freedoms, who ignores proper oversight. 

When I accepted this job I was determined to lead an authorizer that allowed public charter schools to fulfill their promise – who found ways to respect school autonomy while ensuring proper oversight, and who found ways to show that public charter schools can be a constructive and collaborative part of civic life.  

I believe that, for the most part, we’ve succeeded.  By almost every measurable dimension our schools have become higher quality and more equitable over the past eight years.  We’ve deepened our collaboration with DC Public Schools, launching a common lottery, a citywide enrollment fair and a citywide recruiting fair.  We’ve gone from ignoring city agencies to engaging deeply with them, working together on more than thirty task forces and working groups.  In the process, we’ve helped make our city stronger and better able to serve all of its residents.

With that said, there is much more to be done.  We’ve narrowed the Achievement Gap, but it remains far too large.  Our work has always been premised on the firm belief that Black Lives Matter, but we still have so far to go to make that aspiration a reality.  Part of my decision to step down was a recognition that maybe I’ve carried things forward as far as I am able, and what is needed are new perspectives, new ideas, and new energy to sustain our progress.  In Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis I believe our board has found a leader to do just that.  

Of course, I planned to step down long before coronavirus.  With the pandemic the challenges before the DC Public Charter School Board have doubled, as they have for our schools and virtually every other institution across the globe.  The savage inequities in who is affected and who is dying of the virus only reinforce our obligation to offer schools that are both equitable and excellent. 

I leave this job with much gratitude, starting with my deepest thanks to you, our volunteer board members who have given so much to our community and to me.  I’m particularly grateful to the board chairs I’ve served under, Rick Cruz, Darren Woodruff, John ‘Skip’ McKoy and Brian Jones, each of whom has been an invaluable source of support, of helpful criticism, and of the kind of thought partnership essential to reaching good decisions.

I’m grateful to our school leaders, staff, and their boards.  They are the ones really doing the hard work every day.  They, more than anyone, have been the source of inspiration and energy to me.  I made it a practice to start many of my workdays with a school visit, and the joy from those visits powered me for the rest of the day. 

I also want to thank the city leadership, including Mayor Bowser and before her Mayor Gray, and the City Council, particularly Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Education Committee Chair David Grosso.  We haven’t agreed on everything, but their core support for our schools and their funding has been invaluable.  And our progress wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of Hanseul Kang at OSSE, the leadership at DCPS, including Kaya Henderson and Lewis Ferebee, and at the Deputy Mayor for Education, particularly Abby Smith, Jennie Niles, and Paul Kihn.

Finally, I want to thank our staff.  I have grown so much in the past eight years, as a leader and as a person.  And much of that growth has been because of you.  Your feedback wasn’t always easy to hear, but it was a gift.  I have truly loved the opportunity to work with you, such a smart and committed and talented group.  Most of all I want to thank our senior team, Lenora, Tomeika, Rashida, and Sarah – and from the past, Clara, Theola, Nicole and Naomi – this job has truly been a team effort.  I thank you for your wisdom, your friendship, your high standards, your excellent work, your willingness to tell me when I’m wrong, and, most of all your ability to make me laugh.  Without you, this job may have been impossible, and it certainly would have been a lot less fun.

I have to admit I feel a little guilty stepping aside in this moment of crisis, but I leave optimistic in the future, with confidence in this board, in the DC PCSB staff, and in Dr. Walker-Davis.  I pledge to stay engaged on behalf of public charter schools and to support you in any way I can.”

It was a truly spectacular event. 

D.C. charter schools set bad example by taking PPP funds

Despite my recommendation that charter schools in the District forgo applying for Paycheck Protection Program money from the federal government, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reveals today that “more than 25 charters have applied for and received these dollars, some getting cash in the two to five million dollar range. Below is a list of twenty eight charters, as tweeted by Will Perkins, that apparently obtained PPP received loans, which under the plan can be converted to grants. Mr. Perkins is an analyst at the Office of the DC Auditor.

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The charter schools join a list of prominent private schools in our area such as Sidwell Friends, Lowell School, Georgetown Preparatory, the Field School, the Edwin Burke School, and Gonzaga College High School that also accepted the funding.

According to Ms. Stein, charter and private schools justify their awards by stating that “they are legally entitled to the money and that it is a necessary infusion, with private donations drying up and enrollment numbers unclear for the next academic year. They need the money, they said, to ensure they can keep all of their employees on their payrolls.”

Shannon Hodge, the newly appointed executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, defended the actions of the school’s she represents this way, according to the Post reporter:

“We know that costs will go up, but more importantly, there are lots of things that are unknown. . . . This program allows them to bring some stability to this uncertain situation.”

Kingsman Academy PCS, the school where Ms. Hodge recently resigned as executive director, on the table above is in the three hundred and fifty thousand to one million dollar range for government assistance.

With all of the discombobulation going on out there right now, revenue for charter schools is perhaps one of the only areas where stability actually exists. The D.C. Council recently recommended a three percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for the 2021 fiscal year. In addition, the charter school per pupil facility allotment is slated to go up.

As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.

I wish to thank the many charters that decided to do the right thing.

U.S. Supreme Court gives school choice greatest victory in 18 years

Yesterday, in its final day of the current term, the United States Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a school tuition tax credit program in Montana should have been allowed to include religious schools as recipients of the scholarships. The program was shuttered by the Montana Supreme Court because it permitted parents to send their children to sectarian schools as well as those that are nonreligious.

The finding of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, could not have been clearer:

“The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

In other words, the failure to allow parents to enroll their children in a religious school interfered with their free exercise of religion.

It is the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision since Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. In that case, the Court found that the inclusion of religious schools in a Cleveland private school voucher plan did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Zelman was a tremendous and hard-fought victory for school choice, and like Espinoza, was argued by the libertarian Institute for Justice. But there was also a tremendous difference between the two legal actions.

Cleveland’s state constitution does not include a Blaine Amendment, language contained in 37 state constitutions that prohibit taxpayer funds from going to religious schools. Here is what I wrote about Blaine Amendments last January when the U.S. Supreme Court head arguments in Espinoza and I predicted the eventual decision would be a victory for educational freedom:

“The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.”

Blaine amendments have been used time and time again in the past to invalidate school choice plans that have allowed parents to pick religious schools. Now that this decision has come down and Blaine Amendments invalidated, look for the floodgates of private school choice programs to open widely across the country.

The Washington Post, as it has done since I met with former editorial page director Colbert King in 1999, again came out strongly in favor of the Supreme Court’s reasoning:

“We think there is value in, and have supported, programs that — like the one envisioned by Montana lawmakers and D.C.’s successful Opportunity Scholarship Program — help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education, a choice that parents empowered with the economic means exercise by moving to a particular school district or sending their children to private school. It is important to remember that the scholarship goes to the child, and that the child’s family then decides which school best meets the needs of individual students. Schools that participate in these programs must meet academic requirements established by the state or locality, and some religiously affiliated schools have proved successful in boosting student achievement, attendance and civic engagement.

Ms. Espinoza chose Stillwater Christian School not because she wanted to advance its interests but because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive. They — and other students who stand to benefit from opportunities opened up — are the true winners.”

In the midst of a pandemic, severe economic strife, and racial unrest, we can smile for a moment over the Supreme Court’s decision. It is possible that in the future there will be other wranglings over the constitutionality of programs that allow parents to pick the school of their choice for their children. But there will never be one as significant as Espinoza.

As we approach the Independence Day Fourth of July celebration, freedom just won a great triumph.

Jessica Wodatch steps down as executive director of Two Rivers PCS

When my Facebook feed popped up yesterday, I really could not believe my eyes. My friend Jessica Wodatch announced that after 16 years it was her last day as executive director of the wildly popular Performance Management Framework Tier 1 Two Rivers Public Charter School that she co-founded. Here is what she wrote:

“After 16 beautiful years, I am stepping down as Executive Director at Two Rivers. Today we had our last closing circle together and my staff shared this beautiful video. It has been a true honor to work alongside such amazing people to do such important work. I have loved getting to see children grow and grow up, getting to know families, and collaborating with brilliant educators to create and nurture a joyful learning community. I’ll be staying on for a few months to help our talented new ED, and then I’ll be setting off to work as a leadership coach. Of course, TR will always be a part of me and in my heart, so I won’t be far away. Thanks to everyone for their long-time support of me and the school, and to the Two Rivers family for such a meaningful and loving celebration!”

I interviewed Ms. Wodatch eight years ago and it made a tremendous impression on me. I remember it like it was yesterday because she did something that I still believe is highly impressive. Upon meeting her, the Two Rivers PCS executive director walked me right up to some randomly assembled students so they could tell me about their school.

That day began a professional association with Ms. Wodatch that I have cherished ever since. One of my favorite times of the year was when I could attend one of the school’s Showcase Nights so I could hear student presentations around the academic expedition that had recently concluded. Almost always my visit ended with me experiencing tears of joy for what these scholars had accomplished. I have reprinted my interview with her below:

My time with Ms. Wodatch began with what I hope will be a new tradition for my exclusive interviews. She marched me right up to a classroom in her bright and colorful middle school off Florida Ave, N.E., and pulled out three young students for me to meet. I even had the opportunity to ask them some questions. But I will come back to these students later.

We then sat down in her office so that I could learn more about Two Rivers. The Executive Director explained to me that it was founded by about three dozen parents who were looking for alternatives to the traditional schools for their children. Ms. Wodatch was familiar with the work being done by Capital City PCS and asked their representatives if they would open a branch on Capitol Hill. While she was told that there were no plans to do so she was informed that there were a group of individuals living in this area trying to form their own school. Ms. Wodatch immediately became involved.

Two Rivers opened in 2004 with 150 students and 25 teachers. It has grown to 450 students pre-K through 8 th located in two buildings across the street from each other. Ms. Wodatch estimates that she experienced “about 20” failed facility deals before they settled on their permanent site.

It is a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school. Their elementary school DC CAS proficiency rate in reading of 78 percent is the highest of all charter elementary schools. The 72 percent DC CAS proficiency rate in math for the elementary school is the fifth highest of all D.C. charters. The scores are not quite as high for the middle school with a 58 percent proficiency rate for reading and a 54 percent proficiency rate for math.

Ms. Wodatch was extremely eager to tell me the reasons behind the school’s success.

“First you have to understand that change takes time,” Ms. Wodatch informed me. She said that she has worked closely with her board on this subject and has received their support and encouragement.

“Second,” Ms. Wodatch explained, “you need to pick a curriculum that is research based and stick with it.” Two Rivers uses the Expeditionary Learning, which according to the school’s web site “emphasizes interactive, hands-on, project-based learning. The school focuses on the whole child, recognizing the importance of character education and the social-emotional needs of children while helping them achieve academic excellence.”

I then asked Ms. Wodatch for her motivation behind opening the school. “I have a passion for equality and justice,” she answered without a moment of hesitation. “My father was a civil rights lawyer and one of the authors of the American for Disabilities Act. I started out at Teach for America working with third graders in the Bronx. I have worked with special education children at both St. Coletta and Kingsburry Day School. Engaging with this population of kids instructs you how to teach all children. I believe that all children can learn and that they deserve the same opportunity to do well in life.”

It was at this point that I understood what really drives Ms. Wodatch. She is doing this for the children. This founder has none of the self focus I have seen from others who have created successful schools despite the tremendous odds working against them. Ms. Wodatch believes in her heart that “learning ​should be fun and relevant to the kids’ lives,” and that “building a school involves building a community.” The executive director quickly got to the bottom line. “Walking into school is like walking into a hug. Having a kid here (her three children attend Two Rivers) makes me a want to be a better parent.”

These notions are consistent with her belief that the school needs to be welcoming and diverse. There are other foundations behind her work and that of her staff. For example, they believe that the arts and physical education are not extras to be provided as an obligation but subjects that should be fully integrated into the curriculum. Music and Spanish are also emphasized at the school.

Besides the high academic results, the end result of these efforts to provide a truly special and caring learning environment are an extremely stable staff and student population. “In the history of the school not one teacher has left to accept another teaching position somewhere else,” Ms. Wodatch proudly said. “On the student population side our re-enrollment rate is around 90 percent.”

But the school is not content to stay in one place regarding their progress. The staff spends time every week on professional development and is heavily dependent on data to drive student assessment. According to Ms. Wodatch “the goal is not to just teach the basics but for our kids to learn 21 st century skills. We focus on subjects such as equality, expert thinking, and complex communications.”

Which now brings me back to the students I met at the beginning of my visit. All three were well- dressed, professional, and extremely articulate. They looked me straight in the eye as they spoke. These kids had a confidence you don’t usually see in kids their age.

The students uniformly described their school as a community. When I asked whether they missed their friends since Two Rivers is not a neighborhood school they each shook their heads no. “We have made plenty of new friends here,” remarked one of them, “and the work is harder than it would be at my regular school.”

The fight for educational equity is not over

I’m inspired this morning by the words of my friend Virginia Walden Ford, the woman who became the symbol of the fight for private school vouchers for disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C. Below I reprint her Facebook post from yesterday:

I am a Black Woman. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. When my father, William Harry Fowler, was named as the first Black Assistant Superintendent of the Little Rock School District in the late 60’s, “they” burned a cross in our yard and threw a rock through our window. From that point forward, I can say that I have seen and experienced racism my entire life.

Systemic racism is rooted deeply in America and, therefore, cannot easily be corrected. For many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for racial justice, this is a moment of reckoning that has eluded us for far too long.

I read this today and was inspired.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”…James Baldwin- from The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2010)

Therefore, I believe that for any change to occur, that it absolutely must be faced. That is why I am happy to see young people taking to the streets to exercise their constitutional right to protest. The world needs to know that BLACK LIVES MATTER. Seeing their faces in protest means America MUST face the issues that have been prominent in our lives far too long.

I have been fighting for justice for a long time, longer maybe than many of the young people who are out protesting have been alive. In all of those years of activism, I have learned about the power of love and the power of hope. Even in times of great struggle, it is important that we do not forget love or lose hope. We can make the world better, but only if we work together. When we come together as people of all races, sexes, and creeds we create change.

When we were fighting for educational opportunities for the young people of Washington, D.C., people tried to divide us. Well, first they tried to dismiss us, and when they could not do that, they tried to defeat us, and when they could not do that, they tried to divide us. It is important that the people fighting for justice today remember the lessons that we learned then. Do not let the most extreme voices define you. Stay true to yourselves. Find people who want to help and work with them. Forgive. Be kind. But fight HARD for what is right and never give up.

I am not done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I am inspired by the young people making their voices heard. They give me hope for a better world. Let us get to work making this happen.

#BLACKLIVESMATTER

Blessings,
Virginia Walden Ford

We can never be done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe that if we had figured out how to close the academic achievement gap years ago we would not have seen the pandemic kill so many in the Black community. If we had solved the challenge of providing all children a quality education independent of their zip codes then the economic damage we are witnessing today would not have fallen so much harder on minorities.

We know the right thing to do when it comes to public education reform. We must provide quality seats to all students in whatever form that takes, private school vouchers, charter schools, or traditional ones. But we must act now. This should be the lesson from current events.

D.C. Democrats for Education Reform apologizes for campaign mailers

At the end of May, the Washington City Paper’s Mitch Ryals identified serious problems with the accuracy of campaign literature distributed by the D.C. Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter school organization. The pieces attacked Janeese Lewis George, who successfully challenged DFER’s endorsed candidate incumbent Brandon Todd in Ward 4, and Brooke Pinto, who won her Ward 2 contest against Patrick Kennedy, who was also favored by the education group.

The criticism of Ms. George has proved to be especially problematic in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. The flyers stated, according to Mr. Ryals, “Janeese Lewis George bragged: ‘I will divest from MPD!'” . . . “That’s politician-speak for cutting police officers in Ward 4!” The City Paper reporter quotes another piece as stating, “Our police officers have dedicated their lives to keeping Ward 4 families safe. But Janeese Lewis George calls them ‘one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.'”

Here is how Mr. Ryals explains the positions of Ms. George regarding the police and law enforcement:

“The first quote about divesting from the police department originates from an October 2019 tweet, which initially left little room for ambiguity (she punctuated the tweet with a ‘full stop.’)

George clarified in a follow-up tweet that she ‘would redirect some of the $550 million in funding that is currently allocated for policing toward violence prevention and violence interruption programs…’

George tells LL [Loose Lips] she doesn’t want to reduce the police force, but she is in favor of using a part of its budget to fund public health approaches to address crime—violence interrupters or putting more social workers in schools.

‘It’s about how we’re using our officers that is the problem,’ she says. ‘Officers sitting in cars is not effective. That’s a leadership problem. I’m not blaming the officers. I’m looking to leadership and asking ‘What are you doing to reduce crime?'”

In other words, Ms. George’s positions are consistent with the defund the police movement that is now sweeping the country.

A couple of days ago, DFER apologized for their literature:

“During this election season, DFER-DC endorsed Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, a champion for education reforms that have helped make D.C. the fastest improving urban school district in the country and have better prepared Black and Brown children for college, career, and life. In furtherance of this, DFER-DC distributed mailers to Ward 4 voters informing them of Janeese Lewis George’s position on divesting resources from traditional police programs, a position that polling showed Ward 4 voters opposed. These mailers oversimplified a more nuanced conversation about public safety without calling out the problematic history of policing Black people, causing misunderstanding and pain on an issue vitally important to the students and families DFER-DC serves. We have taken the time to reflect on the implications of these mailers: We made a mistake, and we have learned from it.”

The director of DFER-DC originally explained the thinking behind the release of the flyers to the City Paper this way:

“Ramin Taheri, director of DFER-DC, says the organization crafted its mailers based on poll data. In Ward 4, for example, 68 percent of the 303 registered Democrats polled say they are less likely to vote for someone who wants to cut police officers from the force, according to a memo Taheri shared with LL.”

Ms. George opined to Mr. Ryals that the literature was meant to spread fear. Now, it appears that the flyers were as inappropriate as they were at the time they were distributed.

Failure is not an option when it comes to educating D.C. students

I learned a few things from reviewing the testimony of Shannon Hodge and Dr. Ramona Edelin offered at yesterday’s D.C. Council Hearing on the Budget before the Committee on Education and the Committee of the Whole. First, I observed that the city is willing to consider a charter school co-location at the closed Spingarn High School. It’s not much of a concession as the entire building should have been turned over to charters. I guess its 225,000 square feet is even too much for DCPS to handle.

I was extremely satisfied to see, as indicated by Ms. Hodge, that the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment has made it into Mayor Muriel Bowser’s revised fiscal year 2021 budget. I previously reported that she had pushed for a three percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which was a decrease of one percent from her original plan, but there was no mention of the revenue for buildings. I also discovered that the Council may push to restore the entire four percent jump in the UPSFF.

Moreover, Ms. Hodge pointed out that a regulatory change by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had the effect of lowering alternative education dollars for many schools “serving adults and disconnected youth” by twenty percent. She called on the money to be restored at a time when this type of education has become even more crucial in a tenuous economy.

Lastly, the structure of the new DC Charter School Alliance is beginning to become fleshed out. Dr. Edelin revealed that she will become a senior advisor to the group. In her remarks, Ms. Hodge filled in her new role as the Alliance’s executive director:

“As I look ahead to my new position, I want to pledge today my commitment to use my leadership in this newly created organization as a willing partner. A partner with whom you can always reach out to for advice and with whom you can work. A partner who will praise and criticize when necessary but who will also work alongside you to find solutions to overcome, not just close, the opportunity gaps for students who need it most. It is a partnership that must succeed, as failure is a cost that is too high a price for our students, our families, our communities, and our city to pay.”

These comments are important because so far we have not lived up to the underling commitment of public school reform made over twenty years ago in the nation’s capital that any student that needed a quality seat would get one. Instead what we have are wait lists as long as the eye can see for families trying to get their children into high-performing charters and an academic achievement gap that is one of the largest in the country that will not budge.

I’m hoping with every cell in my body that when we finally emerge from the deep fog of the pandemic and racial strife that these are not just words.

Kingsman Academy PCS’s Shannon Hodge to lead new D.C. charter advocacy group

Yesterday afternoon it was announced that Shannon Hodge, the co-founcer and executive director of Kingsman Acadamy PCS, will be the first executive director of the new DC Charter School Alliance, the new advocacy group formed by the merger of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The group could not have made a better choice.

Board chair of the Alliance, Friendship PCS CEO Patricia Brantley wrote regarding the decision, “As many of you know, Shannon was selected after an exhaustive national search. We are thankful to each of you who supported the search, provided feedback on what our organization needed in a leader, and/or participated in screening interviews. In the coming weeks, we will share more news about the new organization, including introducing our board of directors, policy priorities, and more.”

About Ms. Hodge, Ms. Brantley commented:

“Prior to founding Kingsman, Shannon was the executive director of a DC charter school, serving students at risk of dropping out of high school. Before becoming a charter school leader, she was an attorney at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. As a lawyer, former high school counselor, and guidance director, Shannon has dedicated her career to fighting for the needs of our most underserved community members.”

She sure has. The story behind Ms. Hodge’s rise in the D.C. charter school movement should be turned into a book. It was TenSquare’s Josh Kern who hired Hogan Lovells to assist him in his work turning the old Options PCS around when he was brought in as the school’s court receiver. Ms. Hodge had prior experience assisting special education children. When Mr. Kern needed someone to take over the school, he asked Ms. Hodge if she was interested. She accepted the position.

Therefore, even though Mr. Kern was not selected as the new executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board as I had recommended, it is fantastic to see his legacy in the District expand for all to see.

Over the years I have frequently posted Ms. Hodge’s testimony in front of the D.C. Council because her arguments are consistently perfectly articulated, logical, direct, and forceful. She is always respectful and polite in her presentations. I would have published more of them but I thought it would look like I was giving her favorable treatment over other school leaders. I interviewed Ms. Hodge in 2107. Here is a portion from that session:

“In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  ‘Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,’ the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  ‘We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.’”

This is a great day for our local charter school movement.

Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis hired to replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday afternoon that Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis will succeed Scott Pearson as its executive director beginning in July. Ms. Walker-Davis has extremely impressive credentials. She obtained two masters degree’s and a doctorate from the Teachers College, Columbia University, all centered around education leadership.

Her professional career, according to the DC PCSB’s press release, includes seven years in the District of Columbia. She worked under Mayor Anthony Williams as a senior advisor on education and as chief of strategic planning and policy for DCPS, as well as a stint in the city’s Office of Budget and Planning.

After leaving D.C., Dr. Walker-Davis spent nine years employed by the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools. She moved up to the chief executive officer role just under the school superintendent. Her most recent position has been as executive director of Generation Next, a policy nonprofit that attempts to close the academic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She has experience as a member of several boards of directors.

Both the DC PCSB and the Washington Post’s Perry Stein remark that Ms. Walker-Davis is “a first-generation African-American of Caribbean descent.” Ms. Stein has added that Dr. Walker-Davis has young children who she has entered into the My School DC lottery to determine where they will be taught in the fall.

Of course, this is an exceptionally interesting time to be assuming the job. Charter school advocacy has been weak recently in our town where charters now educate 46 percent of all public school students, or 46,500 pupils. Word on the street is that a new organization that is being formed by the merging of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is about to be announced. The FOCUS -driven funding inequity lawsuit against the Mayor is ongoing, and Ms. Bowser continues to ignore demands that she turn numerous surplus DCPS facilities over to the charter sector.

In addition, she will of course be working in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and what that means for the way that public education is delivered in the nation’s capital. Ms. Stein described the current educational landscape this way:

“But charter schools are facing increasing political resistance nationwide. In the District, the latest scores on standardized tests show the traditional D.C. public school system outperforming the city’s charter schools, although both sectors have shown slow improvements in recent years. The board approved five new charter schools to open this summer in Washington despite growing concerns about vacant seats on existing campuses in both sectors. And for the first time since D.C. charters were established in 1996, enrollment dropped in the sector this academic year after the closure of five low-performing or financially troubled campuses.”

Given this environment, Dr. Walker-Davis’s first comments about the unique position of our charters are highly discouraging:

“As a parent of school-aged children, I know from experience that most parents aren’t choosing between traditional and public charter schools,” said Dr. Walker-Davis.  “Parents  want schools that can successfully and effectively educate their children — schools that fit different learning styles, cultures, and interests.”

I will be watching closely to see if Ms. Walker-Davis is the one speaking for the board as was the case with Mr. Pearson, or if this function will revert back to the chair as it operated under Mr. Tom Nida’s leadership. This will offer direct evidence as who is setting the DC PCSB’s future direction.